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They Told the Secrets of America's Bedrooms : Lifestyles: They couldn't get federal funding, but with the publication of their study, these three researchers have shown sex is a national issue.

October 13, 1994|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How do you persuade the U.S. government to fund a huge study about sex?

Easy, thought Edward O. Laumann, Robert T. Michael and John H. Gagnon--senior scholars in their respective fields of social organization, economics and social psychology. You couch your request for government funds behind an innocuous heading--perhaps a neat little term of art like "Social and Behavioral Aspects of Health and Fertility-Related Behavior."

"I still chortle over that one," said Laumann, who holds the imposing title of George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago.

But certain segments of official Washington were less amused.

"It got noticed," said Gagnon, a professor of sociology and psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Sex is generally good for a political hurricane, and the prospect of a comprehensive survey of this most private of pastimes proved to be no exception. All of a sudden, the three mild-mannered academics began hearing rumors that they were working on a pornographic questionnaire.

One day, it all boiled over on the floor of Senate, whose members were debating funding for the project. Gagnon heard Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) rail "that my elevator didn't go all the way to the top." Gagnon, 62, decided not to be offended; he considered the remark "an honorific."

With the publication last week of "Sex in America" (Little, Brown and Co.; New York Times science writer Gina Kolata is listed as a co-author), the three researchers have found themselves back in the fray. Headlines are touting their finding that most Americans lead very tame sex lives, and radio talk show hosts are wondering what rocks the researchers had to crawl under to find married people who say they have better sex--and more often--than their unmarried friends and neighbors.

A denser, more academic version of the trio's conclusions, titled "The Social Organizations of Sexuality," will be published next week by the University of Chicago Press.

Rebuffed in their search for federal funds, Laumann, Michael and Gagnon financed their "National Sex Survey of Adults," which forms the basis for both books, through grants from eight private foundations. The three social scientists devised a questionnaire and deployed a small army of professional pollsters to conduct in-person interviews with 3,423 demographically diverse Americans, ages 18 to 59. The 1992 study was conducted under the aegis of the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

In telephone interviews, Laumann, Michael and Gagnon explained that they proposed a vast, scientifically accurate survey of sexual practices in this country in 1987, in an attempt to demystify the AIDS epidemic. To understand the disease as it began exploding into the culture, they reasoned, scientists needed a kind of sexual behavior base line--a broad sample that simply looked at habits and practices.

"There's an awful lot of policy and decision-making based around these private activities," said Michael, a 52-year-old economist with "expertise and a keen interest" in family choice issues.

But in a field laced with prurience and tinged with ambivalence, he said, "It seems we are supposed to make these decisions in total ignorance. There just aren't any other topics that I can think of where we care so much, get bombarded so heavily--and know so little."

Even the most conservative factions of Washington, Michael said, would not place a knowledge ban on any other issue. "Sewer systems we (can) know about. But not sex."

Many assumptions about the intimate lives of ordinary Americans were based on outmoded and unscientific studies, the trio said. Pioneer sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, Laumann said, based his findings from the 1940s on non-random, largely self-selected samples, "whoever he happened to talk to and could recruit." William Masters and Virginia Johnson undertook clinical studies that also failed to examine a general population, they said. And Laumann, for one, dismissed the best-selling "reports" of author Shere Hite as "junk statistics."

By contrast, their own research was reviewed by "a pile of graduate students," including "nuns and ordained priests," said Laumann, 56. The material was examined dispassionately, they insisted, with neither an agenda nor a set of preconceptions.

What was most important about their findings, Gagnon said, was "not any individual numbers, but the collective portrait--a mirror of a society in which sexuality turns out to be extraordinarily conventional." Chandelier-swinging, partner-switching and other raucous practices may occupy an enormous space in America's fantasy life, "but in everyday life, sexuality is really a rather modest pleasure," he said.

For better or for worse, Gagnon added, "it's not 'Pretty Woman.' "

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